Future Fortunes: Are City-Suburban Educational Attainment Trends in the Southeast United States Unique?

This article is the final article of a four-part series on educational attainment in the U.S. Other articles in the series analyze educational attainment trends in Atlanta, the most populous metro areas, and U.S. legacy regions.

Historically, educational attainment trends in the Southeast region of the United States have been some of the worst. The Census Atlas of the United States shows that while the Southeast made some of the biggest improvements in educational attainment from 1950 to 2000, the region is still behind most of the nation. Despite this overall lag, some possibly positive trends emerge, but it requires a closer look at the region's metropolitan cities and suburbs.

Using educational attainment data from the U.S. Census Bureau, we compare the aggregated data of 51 metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) in the Southeast to that of the 50 most populous MSAs.1 The comparison of these trends suggests that the Southeast has greater educational attainment equity between its cities and suburbs, but the region continues to have lower overall levels of bachelor's degree or higher attainment than the rest of the country.

Less than a high school degree educational attainment: More even in the Southeast
Table 1 compares the ratio of cities' population proportion with less than a high school degree to that of their respective suburbs. In 2010, this city-to-suburb ratio for the Southeast was 1.15, while the ratio for the 50 most populous MSAs was 1.58. These ratios suggest that the levels of adults with less than a high school degree in southeastern cities and suburbs are much more similar than in the top 50 MSAs.2 To make the point clearer, for every 100 residents in a southeastern suburb without a high school diploma, there are 115 residents in the respective central city with less than a high school diploma. While this ratio is still too high, the average in the 50 most populous metro areas is even higher: there are 158 central city residents for every 100 suburban residents.

 

Table 1: City-to-Suburb “Less Than a High School Degree” Ratio

1990

2000

2010

Southeast

1.14

1.17

1.15

Top 50 MSAs

1.48

1.57

1.58

Source: Authors' calculations based on data from the U.S. Census Decennial Census and American Community Survey

In terms of reducing the lowest levels of educational attainment, Southeast cities are performing better than the cities in the 50 most populous MSAs. However, southeastern suburbs are performing worse than the suburbs in the 50 most populous MSAs. Chart 2 shows that southeastern cities have lower proportions of the population without a high school diploma than the largest metros in America and that southeastern suburbs tend to have higher proportions of the population than the suburbs of the most populous metro areas. This suggests that southeastern MSAs tend to have a more even distribution, between cities and suburbs, of residents with less than a high school degree.

Chart 2: Less Than a High School Degree Educational Attainment

Source: Authors' calculations based on data from the U.S. Census Decennial Census and American Community Survey

Bachelor's degree or higher educational attainment: Not such a contrast
The Southeast did not differ so markedly from the 50 MSAs with regard to those with bachelor's degrees. If we look only at the city-to-suburb ratio of population proportions with a bachelor's degree or higher, the two region types seem to be converging towards a ratio of one, or an even distribution of persons with higher degrees among cities and suburbs. As Table 2 shows, from 1990 to 2010, this ratio in the Southeast fell from 1.10 to 1.04 and grew from 0.90 to 0.95 in the 50 most populous MSAs.

 

Table 2: City-to-Suburb “Bachelor's Degree or Higher” Ratio

1990

2000

2010

Southeast

1.10

1.06

1.04

Top 50 MSAs

0.90

0.92

0.95

Source: Authors' calculations based on data from the U.S. Census Decennial Census and American Community Survey

So while the southeastern cities hold a slightly greater level of higher educational attainment relative to their suburbs, and the cities of the 50 most populous MSAs hold a slightly lower level of higher educational attainment relative to their suburbs, if these trends continue in the same direction, both regions will likely have a very similar ratio near 1.0.

However, metro areas in the Southeast have significantly lower proportions of their population with a bachelor's degree or higher than do the 50 most populous MSAs. As chart 3 shows, Southeast cities and suburbs fall below the 50 most populous MSA cities and suburbs. The ratios suggest only that relative to their regional suburban counterparts, Southeast cities have higher concentrations of residents with a bachelor's degree or higher than their suburbs.

These levels of attainment in southeastern metropolitan areas are several percentage points below those of the 50 most populous MSAs.

Chart 3: Bachelor's Degree or Higher Educational Attainment

Source: Authors' calculations based on data from the U.S. Census Decennial Census and American Community Survey

What does this tell us about Southeast cities?
Thus, while you're more likely to see city-suburb educational attainment equity in the Southeast, the metro areas in the Southeast, on average, have less desirable mixes of attainment—high proportions of high school dropouts and low proportions of residents with a BA-plus—than the nation's 50 most populous MSAs.

One potential explanation for educational attainment similarities between cities and suburbs in the Southeast lies in the actual municipal structure and boundaries of cities in the region. In Inside Game, Outside Game, a book that compares city-suburban municipal demographic and finance conditions in different types of metro areas, David Rusk notes that cities in the Sunbelt (the Southeast, South, and southern West states) continue to have the ability to annex unincorporated parts of their suburbs. Annexation increases the population and span—potentially changing the mix, and tax base, of the city. Rusk suggests that annexation has advantaged cities in the Sunbelt because they are able to annex well-to-do suburbs—often places with highly educated residents. This ability to annex provides a potential explanation for stronger parity in both the high school dropout and BA-plus city-suburb ratios in the Southeast. Southeastern cities may include highly educated neighborhoods, such as Buckhead in Atlanta, that are often suburbs in other metro areas that cannot annex additional territory.

The proportions of educational attainment in the Southeast may also speak to other demographic and industrial qualities of the region. The lower levels of BA-plus attainment may speak to the more recent manufacturing industries in the Southeast. It might also be a byproduct of many southern cities, such as Miami, acting as gateway communities for immigrant populations. The relatively higher overall population and economic growth in the Southeast may have also attracted less-educated workers from other parts of the country. Additionally, the current labor market may not demand as many college-educated workers in the Southeast, and the workforce reflects that. Future analysis will look to parse out some of the drivers of these differences.

In sum, there are two distinct trends that make southeastern metro areas appear to be unique in terms of educational attainment. First, southeastern metros appear to have a less desirous mix of educational attainment. Second, proportions of educational attainment are much more even across cities and suburbs of the Southeast than in the 50 most populous metro areas. There are a number of reasons why these may be the case.

1 In this analysis, we look at the educational trends in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The Sixth District of the Federal Reserve System covers all of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, and southern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, and eastern Tennessee.

2 The 50 most populous metro areas in the country include eight in the Southeast. They are included in the comparison for analytical consistency and to provide a common benchmark to study regional variation. Excluding these metros from the 50 most populous list intensifies the findings from the analysis.

By senior community and economic adviser Stuart Andreason and intern Mindy Kao